Premier takes the stand at the Sudbury byelection bribery trial

Premier takes the stand at the Sudbury byelection bribery trial

When Premier Kathleen Wynne first heard that Glenn Thibeault might be interested in running for her party in the 2015 Sudbury byelection, she thought it was an “intriguing idea” that a federal NDP MP would consider running for the Ontario Liberals.

“I had no idea how real it was,” she testified Wednesday at the Sudbury bribery trial, adding that she believed it was “something we should explore.”

But after having a meeting with Thibeault, Wynne said she became convinced that it would be a good thing for him to be the Liberal candidate, and she was prepared to appoint him.

"I felt that Glenn and I had connected, liked each other. I like the approach he was taking to why he was thinking about doing this,” she said. “He seemed like a very sincere and smart man who would be great to have as a candidate.”

The Crown alleges Wynne's former deputy chief of staff, Patricia Sorbara, bribed Thibeault — who is now Ontario's minister of energy — to leave his federal post and run as the Liberal candidate in the Sudbury byelection.  The bribe, according to the Crown, was a pair of jobs on the Liberal byelection campaign for two men who worked in Thibeault’s constituency office when he was an MP.

The second defendant is Gerry Lougheed Jr., a local Liberal fundraiser and owner of a chain of funeral homes who is well-known in Sudbury for being actively involved in public life. He and Sorbara are charged with bribery for allegedly offering Andrew Olivier — the Liberal candidate in the 2014 general election — a job in an attempt to persuade him not to seek the party’s nomination in the 2015 byelection.

The Liberals’ plan, according to the Crown, was that Thibeault would be acclaimed as the candidate without any dissent from within the party.

However, on Dec. 15, 2014, Olivier spoke out against the party, suggesting to the media that he’d been offered a job not to run in the nomination, causing a political uproar and sparking the police investigation that led to the charges before the court. Thibeault ran for the Liberals in Sudbury the following February and won — getting a cabinet post the following year — but has been dogged by the controversy since.

Olivier ran as independent, placing third.

The charge related to the allegations is bribery under the provincial Election Act. Sorbara is facing two counts, Lougheed one, and both have pleaded not guilty.

Wearing a grey suit with the sleeves rolled up at the wrists, Wynne kept a calm and careful demeanor on the stand — even cracking the odd joke. For example, she testified that she’d thought the Liberals had a good shot at winning the riding back in the 2015 byelection. Crown Lawyer Vern Brewer asked her if she’d wanted that. "One always wants to win elections," she quipped.

Wynne was called to testify by the Crown and decided she would waive her parliamentary privilege to do so, which appears to be a first in Ontario political history.

On Wednesday morning, the Crown took her through the political situation in Sudbury as she knew it.

Wynne testified that she had met Olivier when he was a candidate in the 2014 election and thought he “seemed like a fine young man.”

However, when she was debriefed after that election, she came to understand that he wasn’t as strong a candidate as she had thought, as he was unable to bring people together in Sudbury and the Liberals lost the seat they had long held.

On Nov. 20, 2014, only five months after the general election, the new NDP MPP, Joe Cimino, resigned. By then, Wynne wasn’t sure that Olivier was the right candidate, she testified.

A few days later, she learned that Dominic Giroux — then the president of Laurentian University — had said Thibeault might be interested in running in the byelection for her party, and she became intrigued.

Wynne testified about setting up a meeting with Thibeault at her home, along with Sorbara, and said that she came to know more about him, deciding he would be a good candidate in the byelection.

She spoke about the political difficulty for Thibeault in "crossing the floor."

“It was a hard decision for this young man,” she said. “I very much respected the way he was considering this.”

Wynne testified that she made it clear to him that she wasn't promising him a cabinet post. "My recollection is that I actually put that forward, because I wanted it to be very clear, I didn't want there to be any misunderstanding about where I was coming from."

She recalled that he was "very respectful" of that and the issue was settled.

At that point, the consensus was that if he were to decide to run for the Liberals, it would be by an uncontested nomination — where he was the only candidate — or an appointment, Wynne said.

The Crown alleges that the Liberals provided jobs for two staffers from Thibeault’s federal constituency office on the Liberal campaign at his request; that forms the basis of one of the two bribery charges against Sorbara.

Brewer asked Wynne what she knew of conversations Sorbara had with Thibeault about financial matters that he was concerned about.

Wynne testified that she only had general knowledge of these issues from Sorbara, but that Sorbara did not discuss the details with her.

“I had some knowledge of that, I had no specific knowledge of those conversations,” Wynne testified. “I knew that he was concerned about his staff and what would happen with his staff. I think there was some conversation about his expenses and so on when he left the federal NDP and was or was not elected.”

Wynne said she learned that Thibeault had decided to run for her party on Dec. 11, 2014, when Sorbara received a message in the middle of a senior staff meeting.

“My concern at that point, and from there on in, was to keep all of the people who had been involved, involved,” Wynne testified. “Our challenge, for the next few days and weeks would be to keep everyone together and see if we can have that unified team on the ground.”

Later that day, Lougheed met with Olivier and informed him that Thibeault was interested in running for the Liberals in the byelection, court has heard. Olivier recorded that conversation and, according to the Crown, it forms the basis of the bribery charge against Lougheed.

Wynne testified that she spoke with Lougheed before that meeting, but doesn’t recall the specifics of the conversation and did not offer him a "script." However, she offered some general context to the call: that Olivier was not the candidate, but she wanted to keep him involved with the Liberal party.

On cross examination, Wynne said she would have chosen to use different words than Lougheed had and said she would not have left Olivier with any impression that he could still contest the nomination.

Wynne later testified that she did not use the "reward" when speaking to Olivier, as Lougheed did in the recorded conversation, concerning potential roles for him with the Liberal party.

Lougheed set up a call between Wynne and Olivier Dec. 11, the court has heard.

Wynne testified that she made it clear to Olivier in that call that she was prepared to appoint Thibeault as the candidate.

“What I made clear to him was that there was these two possibilities: There was either going to be an uncontested nomination or there was going to be an appointment,” she said.

Wynne testified that she talked about ways that Olivier could stay involved, such as running for executive positions with the party. “Attached to every one of those is a process, and he would have to go through the process,” she said.

Wynne recalled the conversation with Olivier as “circular” and “awkward.”

“He was not forthcoming with his perspective on any of it,” she said, adding that she was sympathetic to him because it was a hard conversation for him to have.

By the end of the conversation, she did not know where he stood, she said.

Wynne also testified about a conversation Sorbara had with Olivier the next day, which Olivier recorded and that forms the basis of one of the bribery charges against Sorbara, according to the Crown's case. The premier said she had spoken with Sorbara about how she could make some specific suggestions to Olivier about how he could stay involved in the party.

However, Wynne agreed, during cross examination, that this was not a quid pro quo for him stepping aside.

Wynne also testified under cross examination that she, Lougheed and Sorbara spoke with Olivier because she didn’t want him reading in the newspaper that Thibeault would be the candidate.

The conversations were not, she said, about making sure Thibeault was the candidate — because she could have simply appointed him, which she ultimately did.

The Crown’s allegation, however, is that Lougheed’s and Sorbara’s conversations with Olivier amounted to a bribe or attempted bribe in effort to persuade him not to be a candidate.

“There was no necessity for us having these conversations,” Wynne said. “We could have gone ahead and made the appointment without having any of these conversations.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date Thibeault was appointed to cabinet. 

Jessica Smith Cross

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